How to Protect Your Mental Health During Exam Season

Since the last day of Thanksgiving break, all those study skills you’ve honed during your extensive academic career have decided to stay at home with the leftover mashed potatoes. While you might be able to conceal your study fugue during lecture, exam season is coming. Your calendar alerts about final exam-related review sessions are getting dangerously close. TBH, just thinking about studying for final exams is giving you pre-exam anxiety, but there are a few ways to protect your mental health this test season.

Though all the numbers you collected from your fall semester flings won’t help you pass your calculus final, there are a few tips to help you optimize final exam study sessions without compromising your mental health during this exam season.

1. Organize your thoughts

Whether you bullet journal, cultivate dozens of sticky notes, or write a memo on your arm, implementing a way to organize your thoughts that works for you can help you study more efficiently and prevent mental fatigue.

Based on your various study guides, you might already know what topics you need to learn for your upcoming exams. However, constructing a schedule of what subject you’ll review (along with your study schedule) can prevent your study session from getting sidetracked—thus helping your study anxiety.

Since everyone has different test-taking strengths and learning styles, how you organize your study calendar can be subjective. Plus, it can vary depending on the material you’re reviewing on a given afternoon. To avoid binge-studying or cramming, there's a profusion of ways to organize your innermost studying desires:

  • Listing. Whether you regulate your thoughts in a to-do list or a general list, list-making helps quench your anxiety. Though you might not be prone to anxiety, stressful situations (like prepping for exams) can make anyone more susceptible to mental strain. The act of list-making allows you to clear your mind because the items on the list ensure that you won’t forget anything you need to do in the near or far future. List-making can also help you scribble down any obscure questions you need to ask your professor or TA during your next class.

  • Mind maps. If you have a general subject that you want to study, but you’re not sure how or what you should review, a mind map can also help you incorporate spatial, or visual, learning while you solidify your study itinerary. Sketching out a rough illustration for a molecule and using branches of your mind map can help refocus your study plan.

  • Bullet journaling. Bullet journaling is a creative way to explore your thoughts and agendas. Because this option uses your artistic side, it also functions as a deceivable way to practice self-care. Likewise, there are a few bullet journaling apps if you’re an eco-friendly journal enthusiast, as well as some note-taking apps that can duel as a digital space for your bullet journaling needs.

  • Multiple calendar events (and subsequent reminders). Setting up a series of study-related calendar alerts can ensure you’re staying committed to your study schedule. Plus, it can help you change subjects to make sure you’re diversifying your study agenda (so you aren’t using your sociology exam to avoid studying for physics).

  • T-charts. Along with making relevant study lists, t-charts can help you better organize your thoughts and study needlist wishlist in a more positive way. Because you format a t-chart in two separate lists, you can use your chart to organize the subjects you need to continue to study and the ones that you already understand. This approach will help you celebrate your studying breakthrough, which will help motivate you to approach the items that are still on the “to-learn” side of your t-chart.

Nonetheless, even the most structured list and study agenda won’t protect your mental health on its own.

2. Treat yourself during your study milestones

If you finally mastered a concept that you spent all semester and a week trying to comprehend, reward yourself with a long bath. If you aren’t into bubble baths, treat yourself to something you do like.

You should exercise an equivalent exchange when you reward yourself for your studying successes. If you guessed the right definition or concept for a flashcard, then you should treat yourself with something small, like a piece of dark chocolate or a single response tweet to that dude you claim totally isn’t a fuckboy (even though he definitely is). Whereas, if you finally understand and can replicate what you learned, a difficult concept about a reoccurring topic that will probably end up on your final 14 times, then you should award yourself with something more notable.  

Granted, you can also set up a custom reward system for your achievements. Therefore, correctly answering several minuscule questions could eventually add up to a more extended study break or a better reward. After all, if Panera can have a rewards program, so can your study session.

Related: How to Actually Make It to Your Morning Classes, As Told by a Sleepy College Student

3. Combat exam anxiety and fears with positivity

Let’s face it: you probably think the only positive to burrowing your face into your organic chemistry book is that every time you turn to page 72, you can see that hot AF actor portraying a chemist—which makes not understanding non-benzene aromatic compounds a little more tolerable. Nonetheless, you should use your study milestones as a starting point to look at your study sesh in a more positive light.

However, the best approach to incorporating positivity into your study routine is to spend time with the people you love: like your friends and family. Although it might be difficult to justify an impromptu trip to visit your parents two states over, you can quickly set up a FaceTime session with you and the ‘rents (you know, once you explain to them how to install and use it).

If your friends need an excuse to take a study hiatus, invite them over for a finals-themed vent party (just without the cuties and booze). Ranting sessions can help you and your friends vent about your studying woes, which can lead to some necessary relief. Plus, seeing your friends, no matter how brief, can relieve some test-related anxiety for all of you.

4. Don’t forget about your physical health

Avoiding comfort foods during exams season is a struggle—especially since nobody ever stress eats kale (you’re not fooling anyone, Stacey). While avoiding the temptation to eat everything greasy and salty can seem overwhelming, especially after you just reread 100 pages of an overpriced textbook, stock up on healthier food options before you embark on your study adventure.

Having healthier meal and snack options readily available in your dorm will help prevent you from falling back on ordering fast food from Postmates. Likewise, meal prepping before your study sesh will help deter your food cravings (and help you save money)—because you won’t be able to use “I don’t have any food in the fridge” as an excuse to order a ton of food you don’t need and could ultimately harm your pre-exam mental health. 

The definition of healthy food is up to you to decide because we don’t expect you to gnaw on only celery sticks and quinoa during your three-week study bender. In addition to eating healthier food options, setting aside longer study breaks to nap and exercise can also help fight stress sickness (because stress can compromise your otherwise robust immune system).

After all, exercising and getting an appropriate amount of sleep can help prevent stress because excessive stress can also harm your physical body.

5. Set aside some time to talk to a counselor

Self-care is essential during any stressful situation, especially before a serious exam or project. While your collagen face mask and glitter bath bombs momentarily reassure you that you’re definitely going to pass your exam and also stay a shimmery, sleek-skinned mermaid forever, there are some things that even sheet masks can’t fix. After all, your diligent skincare routine is already overworked from stopping you from sending those messages to your ex—so it would really just be unrealistic to expect your skincare routine to act as a therapist as well. (Because your face masks and serums need a day off too.)

Consulting a therapist or a professional counselor can help you relieve stress and help you prevent and brainstorm ways to handle any symptoms of anxiety, depression or chronic overthinking. Because exam season is a busy time for on-campus therapist and counselors, you might want to schedule your appointments in advance. Even if you feel like you don’t need to see you therapist on the day of your appointment, you should still go to your appointment because your mental health professionals can help you prevent study burnout and any unanticipated mental breakdowns.

However, if you can't schedule an impromptu appointment with one of your campus' mental health professionals, your university will likely accept walk-ins for necessary counseling appointments.

Related: How Meditation Improved My Life Significantly — & How It Can Improve Yours Too

6. Take frequent breaks

While streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have made us perpetually obsessed with binge-watching TV series and documentaries, binge-studying can exacerbate your pre-test anxiety. Taking a short break after each hour of studying can give you an incentive to study harder.

However, you shouldn’t use your break to do something completely unproductive—use your study breaks as a way to either engage your mind or support your mental health. While watching half an episode of Parks and Recreation could collaborate with your existing self-care routine to feign off any exam jitters, it can also coerce you into evading the rest of your study routine. 

Instead of using your break to sob about returning to your study material, use your time to watch a few short YouTube videos (because funny doggo videos are essential) or take an extended walk around campus. Although you might be tempted to hide away from your textbooks and flashcards indefinitely, structured breaks can help reflect on everything you’ve learned from your studying Olympics. Regardless of what mental health hacks you implement in your study routine, it’s important to recognize that your grades aren’t the only measurement of your academic or non-academic success.

It can seem insurmountable to envision a future where you failed your chordate exam and still became the doctor you always dreamed you’d become, but failure doesn’t define you. Though it’s easy to dwell on a failing mark, failure isn’t permanent, and failing doesn’t make you a failure.